Mary MacCarthy and her 10-year-old daughter, Moira, had just deplaned at Denver International Airport when two Denver police officers met them at the gate, calling them by name and notifying them that they had been reported for suspicious behavior.
The mother and daughter had flown a Southwest Airlines flight to Denver for a funeral. Ms. MacCarthy’s brother had died suddenly the night before.
Unbeknown to Ms. MacCarthy, a flight attendant had suspected Ms. MacCarthy, who is white, of human trafficking, Ms. MacCarthy said in an interview Monday. Moira, her daughter, is Black.
The officers questioned them, Ms. MacCarthy said, adding that her daughter cried in her arms throughout the entire interaction. Ms. MacCarthy showed her driver’s license to the officers; they did not ask for identification for Moira, proving that they were related.
The incident occurred in October 2021, but Ms. MacCarthy filed a lawsuit last week in Federal District Court in Colorado against Southwest, alleging that the airline had intentionally racially discriminated against her family.
“I’ve been raising a biracial daughter for 10 years,” said Ms. MacCarthy, who is 44 and a single parent. “I know about racial profiling and I know that ‘suspicious’ is a code word for minority.”
Southwest Airlines declined to comment on the litigation. In a police report filed the day of the incident, a flight attendant made several claims to substantiate her belief that Ms. MacCarthy was a human trafficker. The flight attendant said that Ms. MacCarthy demanded she sit with her child and that she’d instructed her child not to speak to anyone. This wasn’t true, Ms. MacCarthy said on Monday.
Federal laws prohibit airlines from discriminating against passengers based on disability, race, color, national origin, sex, religion or ancestry. In February of this year, the month with latest publicly available data, 20 consumer complaints alleging discrimination by domestic airlines were filed with the Department of Transportation’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection. In 2022, 118 discrimination complaints were filed, 7 percent more than the previous year’s complaints.
In recent years, reports of passengers who say they have experienced racial discrimination while flying have made headlines. In 2016, an economics professor at the University of Pennsylvania was working on math equations on an American Airlines flight when a seatmate thought he might be a terrorist and alerted flight attendants. That same year, a University of California, Berkeley student was removed from a Southwest flight
In 2017, the N.A.A.C.P. issued an advisory against American Airlines noting a “corporate culture of racial insensitivity and possible racial bias” and cited three incidents in which Black passengers were removed from their flights, including one involving a passenger who questioned why her seat assignment had changed. The advisory was lifted nine months later, after the airline made several changes, including instituting implicit bias training.
Several major domestic carriers, including Southwest, said they voluntarily provide nondiscrimination training to new hires. Airlines are not legally required to offer such training.
Airlines are used less than other forms of transportation for labor trafficking operations, according to a 2018 study of 127 human-trafficking victims by Polaris, a nonprofit anti-trafficking organization based in the United States. It found that 38 percent of study respondents said they traveled by plane during the time they were exploited. Airlines are in a “pivotal position” to identify possible trafficking situations, Polaris said in the study.
The report emphasized the importance of considering potential signs of human trafficking and not just relying on “superficial indicators” such as a traveler’s race or ethnicity.
Indicators of human trafficking on airlines could include clothing inappropriate for the climate, adults who aren’t handling their own identification and travel documents, and flights booked the same day with cash, according to the Polaris report.
A spokesperson for Southwest said that the airline offers an optional course on detecting potential signs of human trafficking.
Ms. MacCarthy said her goal with the lawsuit is to prevent the airline from perpetuating race-based profiling, which she said mixed-race families and people of color faced all too often.
“Racial differences are a physical reality, but there’s a big difference between that and a flight attendant who didn’t even ask if we had the same last name, let alone make any effort to get to know us,” Ms. MacCarthy said. “We have a lot of similarities.”
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